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from Student Affairs Online, Summer 2000

A Vision for Creating Online Communities
By Stuart Brown

College and university students are logging on to the Internet in ever increasing numbers--for academics, co-curricular activities and general entertainment. As the level of surfing continues to rise, and as the accessing devices morph into more compact and wireless units, the potential for a campus of self-absorbed drones pausing simply to check e-mail or browse the Web, becomes less a futuristic nightmare and more a current reality. How should student affairs react? What proactive steps might be taken to address this situation?

One response could be to develop online communities within the virtual campus environment. By purposefully structuring these type of networks to link undergraduates more with each other--their concerns, opinions, recommendations--there is a better opportunity for communications and interactions to help students feel more connected, even if it is within the cyber realm.

Someone who has pioneered the online community concept is Craig Newmark. From humble beginnings of e-mailing friends about happenings in and around the San Francisco area, his craigslist.org has grown into a Web site featuring countless numbers of classified ads that encompass such topics as community bulletin boards, all types of housing information (rentals, roommates, shares), a jobs area, local events listings, and much more. The site registers millions of page views a month by tens of thousands of browsers.

One of Craig's tenets is to make "the net more personal and authentic, providing an alternative to big, impersonal corporate sites." He also looks for people to find their own voice and to develop a sense of trust and even intimacy. By keeping the site down-to-earth and simple (with no ads whatsoever), he has created an environment that student affairs professionals may want to examine and possibly emulate on their respective campuses.

Recently, Craig took some time to talk with Student Affairs Online about some of the important attributes of online communities.

Student Affairs Online (SAO): How would you describe craigslist.org?

Craig Newmark (CM): Our site is a way for people to help each other, to give other people a break, so we can better go about the daily work of our lives. From one perspective, we're running a classifieds site, but somehow we've gone beyond that, providing a means by which people feel connected to each other. If people feel connected as a group you are forming a community.

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SAO: So, in a sense, you are creating a type of online community. How does craigslist accomplish this?

CM: People feel they have something in common by participating in the classifieds that we have on the site. Also, with roommate searches people include a lot of personal information about themselves which, basically, humanizes the process. What people tell about themselves is real. You have a critical mass that creates the perception of community.

SAO: What are some of the critical aspects of developing community in cyberspace?

CM: There are two basic components--common interests and common geography. One does not take precedent over the other. You can connect with people all over the world and also in your community. For example, you can share your interests across boundaries about your favorite TV show or a musician. But you can also use these interests to connect with people in your geographic area too.

SAO: Your site seems to be able to personalize an individual's interactions on the Web. Can you describe what you are trying to do?

CM: In a deeper sense, our site is about restoring the human voice to the Internet. It used to be that the Net was very personal, characterized by people relating to each other as people. Now, there are lots of slick commercial corporate sites that speak in a formal, business-like tone, devoid of real personality.

I don't want to make a value judgement, and I strongly feel there's nothing wrong with commercialism. However, I feel that pretty much everyone wants places on the Net where people can just be people.

That's a big part of what we're about, being a place where people can be real, and just talk to each other. Take a look at our roommate category, for example, and you'll see that people often tell a little story about themselves. You'll see that you're connecting with real people, people who have day-to-day needs just like yours.

We're also about being as inclusive as possible. A lot of how people work is based on "who you know", but we try to open that up just a little. I grew up wearing a plastic pocket protector, thick black glasses (taped together) and marginal social skills. I was a stereotypical computer nerd, and I knew about feeling excluded. Well, we're doing something good about that now, for whoever wants to participate.

SAO: How do you involve people?

CM: We ask for lots of feedback, and we get it, and do something about it. People want to be able to express their opinions; give their views.

We're also getting into message boards, since that's a really good way for people to discuss what matters to them, often as simple as recommendations for local stuff like a good restaurant or dry cleaner. With some luck, we hope to use board software, which makes it really obvious that you're conversing with people, not just posting messages. That means that when you're looking at a thread of conversation, you see who's participating, with profiles that might include their face, a name, maybe a neighborhood.

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While Craig has not taken his community concept to the halls of academia, parallels can be drawn between craigslist.org and institutions of higher education's attempts to develop community. For example, student affairs professionals currently seek to open and maintain lines of communication with undergraduates and help them feel more connected to the campus environs. Administrators seek students' opinions and recommendations about campus policies and procedures. These features, along with others of craigslist.org, provide a roadmap for initiating online communities. By embracing the concepts and design features of the site, a blueprint is now available for student affairs practitioners to begin construction.